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Spending a day exploring Petrified Forest National Park is totally worth the drive. The whole place feels otherworldly, and it’s the perfect day trip from Flagstaff or as a Route 66 road trip stop.
- 28-mile drive with many scenic turnouts and short hikes (including some in the Painted Desert).
- Badlands revealed in colorful layers from brownish red to pinky purples to bluish hues with layers of white—contrasted against a bright blue sky and dotted with desert shrubs and cacti.
- Wood turned to stone! One of the largest petrified wood deposits in the world.
- A 1932 Studebaker parked on a section of Old Route 66 running through the park.
- Thousands of petroglyphs and hundreds of archaeological sites.
I’m so glad I convinced my sister that this should be our day trip from Flagstaff before we headed down to Sedona on our Arizona girls getaway. I’d go back for another visit in a heartbeat!
Keep reading for a quick guide to visiting with basic park info, recommended stops with a map, short hikes, and (in case you need more convincing) dreamy photos.
The Painted Desert stretches from the Grand Canyon across Navajo Nation to Holbrook, and part of it is located in the northern part of Petrified Forest National Park. You might sometimes hear the park referred to as Painted Desert National Park for this reason, but that’s not its true name—and Painted Desert is much more than what you see within Petrified Forest NP!
*Always check the NPS website directly for alerts, road closures, full fee information, and updates.
Recommended: If you’re planning to visit multiple national parks in a year, the America the Beautiful Pass may save you money.
Painted Desert and Petrified Forest Points of Interest
Are you more interested in scenic views, hikes, or learning the science of petrified wood? Or maybe you’re curious about how human activity has intersected with this landscape throughout history. You can focus on one or get a little of each with a day trip in the park!
Here are the types of things to do and see in Painted Desert and Petrified Forest:
- Cultural and historic stops: Middle section of the park (petroglyphs), along with the Route 66 alignment on the northern loop.
- Scenic overlooks and hikes: Many throughout the park.
- Petrified wood: Concentrated in the southern section of the park.
I recommend picking a few must-visit locations based on your interests, and then seeing what stops intrigue you along the way. If you are on a tighter timeline or prefer a structured itinerary, the NPS has suggested itineraries based on how much time you have.
7 Recommended Stops and Hikes in Petrified Forest NP
On our day trip, we focused mostly on seeing varied scenery with several short hikes, and checking out a dash of history and petrified wood. We started at the north entrance and worked our way south, even though it’s technically more efficient to go the other direction when traveling from Flagstaff.
Based on our experience, here are some of my top recommended stops and things to do when spending the day at Painted Desert and Petrified Forest.
This is a quick pull-off and beautiful introduction to the landscape of the Painted Desert with its red and pink hues. A great backdrop for photos!
Kachina Point and Painted Desert Inn (Short Hike)
Behind the national historic landmark Painted Desert Inn (now a museum) is a beautiful and easily accessible overlook called Kachina Point.
You can also hike the Painted Desert Rim Trail, which is unpaved but developed and just one-mile round trip.
My sister and I are always up for an adventure and were more interested in the trail leading down into the canyon below Kachina Point.
The trailhead for Petrified Forest National Wilderness Area Access Trail* is at the back corner of the Painted Desert Inn. It’s a gravel trail that’s a bit steep with a few switchbacks until you get to the base, where the red-stained hills rise up above you.
As the trail name implies, it leads to the backcountry wilderness area, but you can just walk for a short while once you reach the bottom.
You may find yourself completely alone down here—with the only noise rocks crackling beneath your feet.
Pause for a moment and listen: complete and utter silence. No forest creaking around you, no birds fluttering about, no human noise except for the sounds of your own breathing.
I’ve never experienced anything like this sound vacuum—it was striking and magical and has stuck with me since.
We hiked here for about an hour round trip and then moved on to continue our drive around the park.
*Please be sure you are prepared, know where you’re going, and follow safety signs at the park. Proceed at your own risk. There are helpful informational signs in the parking lot.
This quick stop is an easy pull-off with vast and expansive views—including a sweeping view of the road curving into the distance.
Studebaker on Old Route 66
Enjoy classic Americana at the Route 66 stop, where you can see a 1932 Studebaker and remnants of the historic route. There are still some telephone poles that show where the old Route traversed (with the “new” Route 40 in the background).
This is the only national park with a portion of Historic Route 66 running through it!
Take a short walk here to check out petroglyphs and some interpretive signs where you can learn more about the 13,000-year human history in this place.
The nearby Newspaper Rock is also an interesting stop for petroglyphs! Having binoculars or a long lens on a camera is helpful to see these.
Blue Mesa (Drive and Short Hike)
This spur from the main road is worth it, offering a beautiful contrast to the browns, reds, and pinks in the northern section of the park. If you have time, hike the one-mile trail down into the middle of the mesa.
It’s a popular hike but came highly recommended to us by a ranger—and I’ll pass on that rec after experiencing it myself.
Top Experience: A short hike in the northern section and one at Blue Mesa—the contrast of colors from one place to the next is remarkable.
Rainbow Forest Museum (Short Trails)
As you continue driving south after Blue Mesa, there are many opportunities to see petrified wood deposits.
We opted to take the short trails around the Rainbow Forest Museum and Visitor Center, but also noticed that stops like Crystal Forest had plenty of logs visible from the road if you’re not up for hiking.
The museum here is also pretty interesting if you want to learn more about petrified wood (and see letters from guilt-stricken individuals who took wood out of the park and later returned it!).
- Bring plenty of water! You’ll quickly see what they mean by “dry heat” and it’s vital to stay hydrated.
- Wear sunscreen and lip balm with SPF to protect yourself from the desert sun.
- Watch the signs if you head out on a hike, as some trails lead to backcountry wilderness areas.
- Leave the wood where you found it for future generations to enjoy!
Interactive Google Map
Feel free to open up this Google My Map and make a copy into your own Google account. Access it on the web to edit your copy or simply view it on the Google Maps app on Android or iPhone. Never used Google My Maps? This post details how to create custom maps for trip planning!
I’ve also made it available as a Google List!
Painted Desert and Petrified Forest National Park Photos
Have you been to the Petrified Forest? Any other places in this part of Arizona you’d recommend? Let me know in the comments!